Cartoon by Osmani Simanca

The dark European stain: how the far right rose again

The New Statesman:  When the last zoning war is won, and the Donald J Trump Presidential Library finally opens for business in Manhattan, it is not hard to imagine future historians idling inside the gift shop, regretting that their subject had not done them all a favour and gone full fascist. How much easier the history would be to write if one could date the beginning of the end of the democratic era to the day Trump took office? How much more convenient if the echoes of the 1930s had been of perfect pitch: if Trump had locked up Hillary Clinton, if the trade wars had turned hot; if, instead of withdrawing security clearances from his enemies, Trump simply had them shot.

The intellectual reflex of today’s Western liberals is to invoke the spectre of fascism. It is the most solemn way of registering their revulsion at the course politics has taken. Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state and herself a child of fascist Europe, writes that fascism “pose[s] a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of the Second World War”. Fintan O’Toole, Ireland’s leading liberal intellectual, declares fascism is under way. “What we are living with is pre-fascism,” he writes. Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times agrees: fascism “is already here”.

Liberal historians have certified the mantra. “The attempt to undo the Enlightenment as a way to undo institutions,” the Yale historian Timothy Snyder says, citing Trump’s first two years as president, “that is fascism.” Nor is the fascist wave confined to the United States. Upstanding liberals are supposed to take it as given that France only narrowly escaped a second round of Vichy under Marine Le Pen, that Italy has undergone a new “March on Rome”, and that even Scandinavia now has a right-wing “model” in the Sweden Democrats. During the recent bout of political deadlock late last year in Berlin, when Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union could neither form a coalition, nor stomach running a minority government, the Harvard historian Charles Maier published a pie chart comparing the voting patterns of the Weimar Republic with current German ones, coyly noting that they were not exactly the same.

The definition of fascism is notoriously hard to pin down. The recent coinages – twee-fascism, gonzo-fascism, schizo-fascism – no less so. With understandable caution, some historians insist the term only applies to the social conditions in Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, when the term was first used by Mussolini and his squadristi to describe their vision of society and the state. But most agree that fascism at least applies to the broader phenomenon of right-wing regimes in the interwar years, when parties and groups such as the Nazis, Romania’s Iron Guard, the French Popular Party, the Spanish Falange, and others, came to the fore. These parties forged a new political form by blending together different features, which were sometimes at odds with each other: the idolisation of the beauty and efficacy of violence, the need to construct a mythical past for the people that could only be fulfilled by the instincts of a charismatic leader, and the belief that socialism could only be achieved through a corporatist economy that met the needs of a racially defined group and co-ordinated the interests between workers and capitalists.

Many fascist movements took aim at the idea of not only liberal democracy – but “democracy” tout court – which they took to be a political form that, in its vagueness and elasticity, threatened to dilute the special life force of the chosen people. The problem with invoking fascism today is less that it doesn’t work as a historical parallel or that it doesn’t summon the correct response in populations already numb to every form of invective. Rather, the comparison mistakes the symptoms of decaying liberal democracies – anti-refugee sentiments, the return of anti-Semitism, the attraction to right-populists – for the cause. Worse, it serves as an exculpatory manoeuvre for political elites who, however inadvertently, helped soften the ground for the current upsurge of the right.

In the broadest sense, fascism is not a useful word. Almost none of the right-wing populist movements of our time pit themselves against the principles or rhetoric of democracy. Instead they view liberalism as an alien spore that has infected real democracy. The bluntest besieger of liberal democracy in Europe today is the Hungarian president, Viktor Orbán. In a Transylvanian spa town this summer, Orbán made the case for the fundamental incompatibility between democracy – specifically, Christian democracy – and “liberalism”. Untraditional families, immigration and cultural pluralism – Orbán wants to weed them all out of Hungary. But more notable is that he plans to do it through the EU. “Let us steel ourselves for the European Parliament elections,” Orbán told his audience, “we are on the threshold of a great moment.” He may not be wrong. Orbán’s political party, Fidesz, is a member of the European People’s Party, alongside Merkel’s Christian Democrats, whose right flank is far from repelled by Orbán’s calls for a more exclusionary politics >>>